Sociology-complete problems in psychoanalysis and meditation

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A colleague noted how there was a huge amount of infighting amongst the old-school psychoanalysis luminaries: Freud, Jung, Adler, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, and more. There were different schools and at least one (if not more) secret committees and demands of loyalty from followers.

I’m thinking that if I looked at primary or even secondary sources myself, I could probably get a much better idea of what happened and why. But I started musing from an “inside view” of the mechanics of what might have been going on. I’m getting this from my own experience of writing a meditation blog that comments on the thinking and writing of (other?) meditation teachers. (“Other” in the sense of, am I a meditation teacher??)

When I first started writing my blog, I was super-annoyed, and I thought other meditation teachers were just wrong. Of course, there was huge signal in what they were teaching, but I often disagreed with details or emphasis.

The emotional color of these disagreements were because my interpretation of their writing led to temporary or prolonged suffering on my part. I experienced much good but also much bad. And/or I just found some writing to be incoherent or inconsistent. That was just annoying.

I came to realize over time that my interpretation of what they wrote (what to do, how to do it, and why) was—cliche alert—just that: an interpretation.

Presumably, they wrote what they wrote based on their own past experiences about what was important to mention, with what emphasis, and in what order. A key feature of a meditation practice might have been automatic and implicit for them, so they didn’t think to include it in their writing, or it never became a “thing” for them to consider including in the first place.

I came to their writing with my own past experiences and preconceptions, and those past experiences and preconceptions interacted with their writing to form my interpretation of what to do, how to do it, and why. I may have had “misunderstandings” or I was implicitly doing or not doing important stuff that made a large difference in experience and outcome. One hopes that meditation instructions have a “wide basin of attraction” in that a wide range of interpretations of the practice still set up feedback loops that eventually guide practitioners into doing the right thing. Sometimes this is the case; sometimes it’s not.

That’s not to say I give everyone a free pass. Some stuff was perhaps just sloppy or, in retrospect, perhaps barely checked against a range of student interpretations, to guard against possible misinterpretations before going to print. I recognize that everyone operates under constraints and might do things differently with more time or money. Sometimes it’s a net good just to get a thing out into the world in whatever state it’s in. I’m guilty of all this and more on this blog.

(It’s also worth noting that a lot of stuff on the internet is meant to be consumed alongside simultaneous engagement with a teacher, probably ideally one-on-one. And, for a variety of reasons, I never did that. That’s made at least one prominent teacher and some high-level practitioners place less weight on what I have to say. In my defense, I think that, ideally, artifacts should stand alone. They should be all you need, and I think this is an ideal every artifact producer [writer] should aspire to. Traveling and hanging out with a meditation teacher for days and days is a luxury and a privilege. You should be able to figure it out from a book if you have to, and I think writing for this goal is very achievable.)

But, anyway, when I first started writing this blog I was cranky and accusatory. I wanted to make a mark. I was polemic and uncharitable. I said above that the emotional color was due to my own frustrations and suffering, but a significant reason for writing the blog was that I didn’t want other people to fall into the same traps and to have the same misunderstandings. I really, truly, genuinely felt, and still do, that people were going to get fucked up from stuff that’s out there. (And people have and continue to do so, according to research and anecdotes, both of potentially dubious quality.)

Anyway, anyway, let’s list these out:

  • I wanted to make a mark.
  • And I wanted to help people or reduce the chance of suffering, and I thought I could uniquely do that.
  • And I was cranky from my own aesthetics (epistemic and otherwise), wasted time, and arguably provoked suffering.

Back to the psychoanalysts, if I had to guess without evidence. Those bullets above were probably going on. They wanted to a) experience significance and prominence in their own communities (and to have the experience of being smart, correct, and respected), b) they genuinely thought each other’s stuff was going to potentially fuck up some or a lot of people, and c) they were probably influenced by their own personal bad experiences, e.g. getting psychoanalyzed.

Furthermore, this kind of stuff was probably going on, too:

  • Competition for resources: students, patrons, funding.

People don’t fucking like to be told what to do. They want to do what they want, when the want to do it. They like the predictability of steering their own ship on calm water. This is extremely enticing. I don’t blame anyone for wanting this, and wanting it a lot.

And to compete effectively, whether consciously or not, they needed mindshare. And I imagine that this was a (conscious or unconscious) moral hazard. In my own case, I wasn’t after money, but I did want mindshare. Perhaps I didn’t have to criticize a meditation teacher so harshly. (Part of it was I writing too hastily to be even-handed, but part of it was probably the mindshare thing, too.) I imagine, without evidence, that competition was fierce.

To acquire money and power, you usually need a new school, a new organization, something. Something that seems bigger than one person, and something distinct (and better!) that you can point funders and patrons at. My dad is a social worker in private practice (a descendent of these psychoanalysts!). He relays a story of a psychologist ranting about modern psychotherapy: “No more fucking schools! Do not start another fucking school!” My dad, and a lot of people, want to integrate psychotherapy, to find the best of everything that works and to add in nutrition and every other evidence-based thing they can find. No more fucking schools adding to the fucking noise.

To borrow from Venkatesh Rao via David Chapman. I also want to emphasize that my heart goes out to my imaginary conceptions of these psychoanalysts. I think a large part of the infighting was that they were Rao Clueless / Chapman Geeks, not Rao/Chapman Sociopaths (which is a good thing). I’ve met sociopathic thought leaders who didn’t care about the thing they were pushing as such; they didn’t care about getting it right just that they got money/status/power from it. I think the psychoanalyst luminaries loved their thing for the thing, in itself and because of what they thought it could do. And they wanted to get it right, thus the fighting (which might have been a net negative to some of their goals, as discussed below).

Another dynamic that I noticed within myself: “Whoa, that’s actually pretty good. I want to just add that to my system. But I can’t just add it, even if I use it with credit it feels weird. Alien DNA. I have to somehow tear it apart and rework it and come up with something even better.” (And, not just that, using other people’s stuff, even the least bit recognizably, would lead to decreased mindshare.) I bet that consumed a lot of brainpower too, for better or worse.

(And then, out of scope, there’s the politics is the mind-killer stuff. You can run simulations of how two groups, starting very similarly, polarize as extremely as they possibly can, over time. Or something. And all this kind of stuff, etc., etc.)

  • And, parenthetically, yes, geez, it just feels good to think you’re going to start or reform a movement. And, uh, yup, show everybody. Everybody. That feels good, too.

By the way, over time, I did soften my stance on a lot of meditation teachers and the good that they were doing. I began to see more of the “net good” side of their work, and I became more sensitive to the fact that I couldn’t have constructively reacted to their stuff… without their stuff. I noticed another thing, too: that human tendency to knee-jerk criticize the crap out of other people’s stuff, to judge it harshly as quickly as possible. I think this has to do with wanting to feel safely superior and looking for early clues of such, so you can lock that shit down in your head. One meditation teacher noted that, over time, he came to understand that, what with their bizarre appropriation and misunderstanding and warping of all sorts of traditional stuff, those other meditation teachers really did know their stuff. For some things.


So what to do with this? Everybody wants as much safety and security as they can acquire. And people are really fascinated with these theory and tools that they’re crafting, which can help or hurt. And everybody’s got an opinion, for emotional and epistemic reasons. (“Oh my god, you’re hurting people and you don’t even realize it! Also, you funders should give me money.) And that helping or hurting? That’s real consequences, real stakes.

I feel like this is a sociology-complete problem, as is pretty much everything. There’s plenty of empiricism and epistemology and consequentialism and utilitarianism in there, too, to be sure. But I think sociology might dominate all of it, in terms of that getting the most good for the most people part… because defining and agreeing on that… that’s a sociological problem.

In the paragraphs above, I listed many of the factors at play in theory-and-practice infighting. I’m sure there are many more. And the whole situation is “anti-inductive” in that people are really smart and they’ll continually rewrite the rules of the game with respect to all the factors above.

It all has to be taken into account, every factor, every influence, including anti-inductiveness, to deconvolve these influences and get out more goodness. I suppose the first step is to be aware of as many factors as you can and how they operate within yourself. It’s made of people.

So, yeah, good meditation, good psychological health, and I really do want to integrate the perspectives and concerns of millions of voices, billions of bloggers, say. Their hopes and hurts, what is and isn’t working. One-size-fits-all is violent in that it will always do damage at the ever-evolving tails unless those voices are somehow heard without drowning out the best-most-healthiest stuff that society can produce for the widest range of people with the currently limited resources at hand.

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